Millions of children – and adults – around the world have experienced the joy of Joe Hisaishi’s music through his nine film scores for Studio Ghibli, and he holds a special place in my own soul because his melodies comprise some of my first memories of symphonic music as a child. Hisaishi’s compositions are memorable because they tell stories, and his empathetic understanding of characters’ emotions allows him to amplify, through music, even the most simple situations. His highly melodic, polystylistic scores – with influences from Western classical, Japanese classical, and electropop-minimalism – have pioneered new levels of nostalgia, ennui, childlike wonderment, and cinematic tone painting while exploring the profound themes put forward by director Hayao Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki.  

Joe Hisaishi
Joe Hisaishi

 

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

We’re going to start the journey by cheating, because Hisaishi technically began collaborating with Miyazaki on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in 1983 before the formation of Studio Ghibli. However, Nausicaä happens to be one of Hisaishi’s most epic scores and is emblematic of all the compositional techniques he commonly employs. The film opens with credit slides decorated with bizarre art, ancient cave paintings and mysterious symbols, to introduce the world’s implied history. Hisaishi’s prelude features a timpani roll and brass fanfare which is answered by insect-like skittering in the strings, painting the giant bug-creatures who defend their forest from human armies. Within a minute into the film, the solo piano enters on an authentic Hisaishi melody before drifting to the strings which tonally depict the young princess Nausicaä flying above the deadly pollen spores of the Toxic Jungle after the apocalyptic Seven Days of Fire. I love Miyazaki, but Hisaishi can often say in 2 minutes what it takes Miyazaki to develop in 2 hours. The full score was later worked into a three-movement symphonic poem, and – without spoiling the plot – the end of the first movement accompanies the most intense moment of the film (following the Bachian counterpoint at 4’30” in the video below). Here, the incredible anti-legato restraint – reminiscent of Beethoven’s slow march from his Seventh – pounds the scene passionately into the soul.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

The first official Studio Ghibli film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, captures Miyazaki’s fascination with flight and his spirit of adventure when Sheeta, the girl who fell from the sky, and the young miner Pazu set off in search of a floating island. Pazu, a skilled trumpeter, plays a fanfare at sunrise every morning to wake his mining town. This subtle moment, along with the Laputa theme, was orchestrated into a Haydn-esque concerto in 2004 for Tim Morrison, principal trumpet of the Boston Pops, in a concert conducted by Hisaishi with the New Japan Philharmonic World Dream Orchestra.

My Neighbor Tortoro (1988)

The most definitive character of the Ghibli universe has to be Totoro, and as such he has his own theme song. Hisaishi wrote Totoro’s “Stroll” (“sanpo” in Japanese) as a children’s march, with lyrics by Rieko Nakagawa, in fantastic, pop-song kind of way. Throughout the film, sisters Satsuki and Mei remain optimistic as their mother recovers from a life-threatening illness, and throughout My Neighbor Totoro one can hear the joy that exists not only in Hisaishi’s written notes, but also in his approach to performing. In a 2003 concert titled “A Wish to the Moon”, Hisaishi gestures his musicians to smile before signaling the downbeat for an arrangement of “Totoro” for nine cellos and piano.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Kiki’s Delivery Service was the first box office success for Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki said in an interview: “Many of my movies have strong female leads – brave, self-sufficient girls who don't think twice about fighting for what they believe with all their heart. They'll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a savior. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.” Kiki is just that example of a brave, self-sufficient young girl (who also happens to be a witch) who comes of age in a whimsical pan-European seaside town with her sassy cat Jiji. Hisaishi conjures the magic of everyday life through one of his most elaborately orchestrated scores. Hisaishi conducted the piece in the 2008 concert “Joe Hisaishi in Budokan” which commemorated 25 years of Studio Ghibli with over 600 orchestral musicians and choristers.

 

Porco Rosso (1992)

This comedy-noir tale of an Italian man-pig and his engineer’s daughter Fio in the post-World War I Adriatic is told through Pino Donaggio-esque slow-rag jazz which occasionally morphs into a piano concerto that could hinge the gap between Prokofiev and Shostakovich. A movement from the score, “Madness,” portrays the maniacal minds of the embattled government pilots and rouge pirates. Hisaishi conducted the piece from the piano at the Budokan concert.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Hisaishi dove into the depths of Romanticism when writing the music for Princess Mononoke to present the dualist battle which plays out visually through Lady Eboshi, the modern humanist, and San, the wild environmentalist. The most famous line of the movie is: “You must see with eyes unclouded by hate. See the good in that which is evil, and the evil in that which is good. Pledge yourself to neither side, but vow instead to preserve the balance that exists between the two.” The soundtrack highlights how humans coexist with the natural world and specifically how our desire to survive clashes with the natural order of the world. For instance, the taiko drumming represents the plight of the forest spirits as they fight back against human invaders. In this score, we also experience a rare instance of a love theme for the two main characters, Ashitaka and San. The below excerpt is also from the Budokan concert. 

Spirited Away (2001)

After receiving an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003, Spirited Away boosted the studio to prominence with English-speaking audiences, and this film is generally a good place to start if you’re new to Studio Ghibli. Its score is one of Hisaishi’s most intricate, utilizing Japanese instruments like the hichiriki. His sound from this period is so iconic that The Simpsons pulled off a convincing parody in 2014. The film’s introduction showcases Hisaishi’s ability to capture ennui and anticipation as the protagonist Chihiro lounges in the back of her parents’ Audi, unaware of, and unprepared for, the journey ahead. Hisaishi recorded an album, Melodyphony, with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2010, which included the opening track from Spirited Away, titled “One Summer’s Day”.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Hisaishi orchestrated the main theme from Howl’s Moving Castle, a waltz called “The Merry-Go-Round of Life”, into a set of Symphonic Variations that follow the trials of Dianne Wynne Jones’ young hatter Sophie as she accidentally gets involved in the complicated life of the wizard Howl. The New Japan Philharmonic, founded in 1972 by Seiji Ozawa, recorded the soundtrack for Howl’s Moving Castle, in addition to having recorded the soundtrack to Spirited Away. The Symphonic Variations were performed at the Budokan concert in 2008.

Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea (2008)

The music of Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea is centered around a children’s march, similar to the one Hisaishi composed for Totoro 20 years before. However, the score is accentuated with an Olympian chorus and motives of the likes of La Mer and Daphnis et Chloé. Listen first though to Ponyo’s theme; the cuteness speaks for itself.

The Wind Rises (2013)

The latest, and likely last, collaboration between Hisaishi and Miyazaki was The Wind Rises in 2013. The film is an homage the aeronautical engineer who gave the studio its name, holding quite a bit of sentimental value for Miyazaki. Hisaishi’s score features the mandolin, harmonica, and accordion with Mediterranean rhythms and melodies, which is a bit deceptive for a film about an inventor whose lifework was turned into an instrument of terror. The soundtrack was recorded by the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra.

Studio Ghibli is responsible for elevating the genre of animation – previously known for its superficial storylines (Disney fairytales, for example) and hyperbolized machismo heroes (Japanese anime of the 1970s) – to the highest form of creative storytelling. But without Hisaishi’s music, its films would not have been as compelling. Even though the excerpts above stand their own, I encourage you to watch the films in their entirety to understand the pacing of Hisaishi’s scores as they unfold alongside Miyazaki’s animations. If you’ve made it this far, I want to close with what I think is the greatest cinematic collaboration between Miyazaki and Hisaishi. Near the end of Spirited Away, when Chihiro boards the sea-train with her new friends to an unknown destination, Miyazaki’s surreal landscapes fuse with this silvery piano solo in a moment of forced introspection, both spiritual and transcendent.